A House Democrat’s anti-abortion stance could cost him a seat: NPR


Very few Democratic lawmakers remain who oppose abortion rights, and a key Texas primary on Tuesday could oust another. Danielle Kurtzleben of NPR has this report.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: The May 24 runoff between Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar and immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros was always going to be a fight. In their first match in March, he edged her out by just over two percentage points, or about a thousand votes. And then the Supreme Court leak happened. Now Cisneros is trying to make sure abortion is at the center of this race. Here she was recently on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”


JESSICA CISNEROS: There are so many key issues where she’s still on the Republican side, and he could become the Joe Manchin of the House. We do not want Henry Cuellar to be the deciding vote on the future of our fundamental rights and freedoms in this country. We simply cannot risk this.

KURTZLEBEN: Cisneros is backed by progressives like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But that quarter has shifted slightly toward Trump in 2020, and Cuellar is one of the more conservative Democrats in the House. Additionally, he was the only House Democrat last year to vote against a bill that would codify Roe v. Wade. Cuellar said his faith leads him to oppose abortion, but that it should be allowed in cases like incest, rape and protecting the life of a pregnant person. Speaking to NPR ahead of the week, he downplayed the importance of abortion in the primary.


HENRY CUELLAR: I don’t run, you know, I’m pro-life. You never heard me say that. When I talk to voters, you know, except when I’m at church and I have people – thank you for your vote on abortion. But I’m not running on abortion.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, though, it’s an inescapable topic. But when Texas Public Radio asked Cuellar after the leak about Cisneros’ attacks on his stance on abortion, Cuellar changed the subject.


CUELLAR: There are a lot of issues there, and she needs to spend some time on how she’s going to defend the border.

KURTZLEBEN: Lawmakers and voters from both parties have consistently aligned themselves on abortion over the past few decades. The group Democrats for Life of America, which opposes abortion rights, called 125 House Democrats pro-life in the late 1970s. Today, Cuellar is the only one they consider pro -life. And this change is reflected in the Democratic electorate. Today, only about 1 in 10 Democrats think abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, down from 1 in 4 in the mid-1970s, according to Gallup. Meanwhile, about half think it should be legal under all circumstances, compared to 1 in 5. Former Illinois Democratic congressman Dan Lipinski unwittingly illustrated the scarcity of Democrats opposed to the right to abortion at this year’s March for Life.


DAN LIPINSKI: And we have Democrats for Life of America here, wherever you are in this big crowd. Must be muffled in the big crowd here.

KURTZLEBEN: Over time, the two sides have drifted apart on so many issues, but abortion has played an outsized role in that sorting out, says Ziad Munson, a sociology professor at Lehigh University.

ZIAD MUNSON: I think we got there because of very specific political strategies by political entrepreneurs from the late 1980s and into the 1990s to put abortion at the center of the Republican Party. And I think the political strategy behind that was to break up the Democratic coalition.

KURTZLEBEN: Subsequently, Munson added, Democrats also more fully embraced abortion rights. Over time, anti-abortion Democrats have either been removed from office or changed their minds. Joe Biden in 1982 backed legislation that would have allowed individual states to overrule Roe vs. Wade, but in his 2020 presidential run he had a change of heart.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: A woman has the right to choose. I would like, in fact – if they find it unconstitutional, I will send to the United States Congress – and it will pass, I believe – a bill that – excuse me – legislates Roe against Wade.

KURTZLEBEN: Voters’ views on abortion are, of course, driven by real moral convictions. But in addition to these convictions, there are undeniable political forces that push people. And one of the main political forces supporting abortion rights is Emily’s List. Christina Reynolds is its vice president of communications.

CHRISTINA REYNOLDS: We would certainly like to think that we are part of it. We would say that’s an important part – you know, that should be an important part of being a Democrat, and hopefully getting elected, that you support everyone’s freedom to decide, to make those choices themselves and not let the government do it for us.

KURTZLEBEN: And bands like Emily’s List are working to take Cuellar down. That outside support worries Eddie Lucio, an incumbent Democratic state senator from Texas who sponsored SB 8, the restrictive law that bans abortion after about six weeks. He supports Cuellar.

EDDIE LUCIO: I really respect him for sticking with it. The young woman who is running against him – she obviously received money from all over the United States to try to bring down the last pro-life Democrat in Congress.

KURTZLEBEN: Cuellar, for his part, has held the seat since 2005, and he has the support of the strongest House Democrats, which he boasted about at a recent rally.


CUELLAR: Look; Pelosi supported me. Steny approved of me. Clyburn approved me. The leader of the Black Caucus supported me. The leader of the Hispanic Caucus supported me. And many other leaders supported me.

KRISTEN DAY: They recognize the importance of this race.

KURTZLEBEN: Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, says Cuellar’s support for the establishment is simply a matter of eligibility.

DAY: And that’s what happened and that’s why we have fewer pro-life Democrats in Congress is that we have these radical progressive candidates.

KURTZLEBEN: Again, nationwide, Democrats are increasingly supportive of abortion rights. But House elections are about local opinions, and Cuellar thinks his moderation is helping him in a district Republicans are targeting.

CUELLAR: If you look at urban Democrats versus rural Democrats — very, very, very different. I mean, if you’re talking about the Second Amendment, you start talking about hunting – very different positions in southern Texas than if you go to my area of ​​San Antonio.

KURTZLEBEN: And while the Democrats are the abortion rights party, Munson of Lehigh University says parties prioritize winning over issues.

MUNSON: The political system that we have, especially the two-party system, is designed to find, promote and elect politicians who represent the party, isn’t it? Parties are a means – like, their main goal is to win elections.

KURTZLEBEN: Democrats will find out on May 24 if their South Texas voters still support someone who opposes abortion rights. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.


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